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Can Social Media Save Detroit?

Roxanne Darling at Bare Feet Studios recently wrote an outstanding piece on the use of social media at Ford. In How Ford Can Ramp Up It’s Social Media Turnaround Story of 2009 (nicely summarized by John Cass on Social Media Today), she outlines a social media strategy to help Ford become more transparent and connect more effectively with customers. She recommends new initiatives (such as getting executives using Viddler to answer questions directly from consumers) as well as building on the social media efforts already being led by Scott Monty.

Ford-CarChristopher Barger at GM has also been innovative, not just at getting the company involved with bloggers, but in the underlying concept of social media in general: listening to consumers and responding with sincerity and transparency. For example, at one gathering he insisted on seating Hummer executives at the same table with green bloggers. While the two groups certainly didn't come away agreeing with each other, they did at least increase their understanding of the other group's point of view.

(Chrysler, meanwhile, still apparently doesn't get social media, at least according to Noah Mallin.)

Regardless of the final form and extent of the auto industry bailout, what's abundantly clear is that the Big 3 can't put a bandaid on their current troubles and then continue to do business the way they have for the last 30 years. Congressional meddling is unlikely to help, but social media is part of what can.

Beyond creating a dialog with consumers, the automakers need to understand how to use social media for competitive research, and most importantly, for labor relations.

While the causes of the current problems in Detroit and many and complex, a big part of the problem is labor issues. This isn't to bash the rank and file, but more of a pox on both their houses: for years, the unions have been making unrealistic demands, and management has been agreeing to them. Time magzine reports that "GM's combined pension and retiree-health-care costs run $7 billion annually and have cost GM more than $103 billion over the past 15 years," as employees can potentially collect more than $100,000 in healthcare benefits after leaving the company.

The adversarial model of labor relations is broken. And while no one expects Rick Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Bob Nardelli to launch into a dance routine with Ron Gettelfinger and sing We're All in This Together, social media could bring a transparency, immediacy and honesty to worker-management relations that's never been possible before. Imagine a production line employee asking a question online and getting a direct response from an auto company executive on Twitter or YouTube—instantly and publicly, with no filtering through layers of management or labor spokespersons. Even more powerfully, imagine one of these companies, instead of hiring a social media evangelist, turning all of its tens of thousands of employees into evangelists by communicating, and then living, a vision beyond creating the next hideous crossover vehicle.

Obviously, it's going to take far more than a Blogger account and a ShareThis button to fix 100 years of counter-productive adversarial labor relations. But if management and labor ever decide to step off that broken treadmill, social media tools can provide a platform for a transparent, direct dialog.


Contact Mike Bannan :


Scott Monty said…
Thanks for the perspective, Tom. We're using social media for far more than listening and blogger relations. There's a serious commitment to it here at Ford for both internal and external use. Expect to see more in the future.

Oh, and the Flex? While some may call it hideous, many more are praising Ford for a unique and different design. Good design will always create strong emotions on each side - that's a good thing. But with a 55% conquest rate (owners who previously did not drive Fords), we're pretty pleased with the results.

Scott Monty
Global Digital Communications
Ford Motor Company
Tom Pick said…
Hey Scott --

Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to comment. Your efforts to use social media creatively at Ford are clearly getting a lot of notice, and praise.

As for the flex - that's just my personal opinion. It's not as ugly as the Honda Element (though -- what is?) and in fairness - I noted that Chrysler isn't doing much with social media, and I included a photo of a Chevette (not exactly a shining example og GM's design prowess), so I had to ding Ford for something!

Plus, I actually own a Ford.
Unknown said…

Your last paragraph sums it up. I appreciate the efforts of folks like Scott Monty and I applaud the efforts. But the problem goes so much deeper than any amount of marketing (social or otherwise) could fix. And you hit the largest nail (read: guilty party) on the head referring to labor relations.

My company currently owns over 30 Ford vehicles in our fleet and have purchased many more over the years. My personal feeling is this: UAW should get what they've got coming. If I were congress, I would completely predicate the availability of funds on the UAW's participation in the HUGE haircut necessary. The US auto industry needs to get costs under control and the UAW is nearly single-handedly responsible for many of the ailments the auto industry is suffering.

Many, many people share my opinion that US automakers make an inferior product, and for UAW workers to get paid what they do is criminal. I'm not implying that the overall product quality is solely in the hands of the assemblers, but for an industry turning out an inferior product, your workers should probably get paid a rate reflective of that quality. They're getting paid as if they're hand-building Aston Martin's - and trust me - they're not. If the people assembling Taurus' got paid any more than $20/hr THAT would be a crime. It's a fine vehicle that serves a market, but let's face it - it's junk. If you want to build a company car that sells for what the Taurus sold for then shouldn't the labor to build it be in proportion to it's sell price? Maybe they'd make a few bucks in profit. But hey, who cares about profit so long as our precious UAW workers are getting their fair pay.

In our neck of the Midwest, most believe that US automakers - and especially and specifically the UAW - should get what it has coming. They've milked it for 100 years and the cow is dry. Suck it up and join the real work where people get paid reasonable rates to do a job.

Get real UAW - you are the ones ruining the US auto industry.
Tom Pick said…
In the old days -- that is, anytime prior to September of this year -- firms with out-of-whack cost models would go in Chapter 11, restructure, and emerge stronger.

Now, we taxpayers subsidize the continuation of management dysfunction.
Anonymous said…
HI Tom,

Thank you for reading and commenting on my post. I agree social media campaigns are not a panacea, but they do offer so much more bang for the buck than traditional media, and, can produce "free" market research as well as new solutions the insiders may not have thought of.

That's not for lack of brilliance in Detroit, it's merely that part of "if you always do what you've always done..." Outsiders can help build a support base for the change-makers within the companies.
Tom Pick said…
Thank you Roxanne, brilliantly stated as always.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ed Kohler said…
The biggest key to social media is being likable. Great products and services get talked about.

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